By Cynthia Richie Terrell
There’s a reason for the phrase “Money makes the world go around.” As we’ve seen this election cycle, no matter a candidate’s platform or connections, they won’t get anywhere without cash in their pockets. An estimated $5.7 billion was spent on the midterm elections in 2018, and it appears we’re about to see that record blown out of the water.
What does this mean for candidates who are women? How hard is it, really, for a woman to raise enough money to be taken seriously? The answer is: You can raise the money, but it’ll be harder. And it doesn’t have to be that way.
In RepresentWomen’s 2020 PAC Report, “PACs and Donors: Agents of Change for Women’s Representation,” we found that women often raise comparable sums to men in the same party and in similar races. However, they are more likely to rely on more small-dollar donations than large political action committee (PAC) donations. This grassroots fundraising strategy takes more time and resources for campaigns and candidates, continuing to disadvantage women candidates. PACs are not less likely to fund women candidates because they have a lower chance of winning their race or are less qualified, but because PACs overfund incumbents.
PACs focus most of their funds on incumbent candidates, compounding on the inherent advantages that come with incumbency. The structural advantages of incumbency, which can seem like a gender-neutral disadvantage for non-incumbent candidates, is in reality a default-male advantage, since white men make up the majority of congressional incumbents.
PACs and other organizations that endorse and fund candidates fulfill responsibilities often carried out by political parties in other nations — that is, they play decisive roles in recruiting, endorsing and funding candidates. PACs have become central political gatekeepers in the American electoral system, and because of their position they can have a profound impact on women’s political representation.
Since its founding in 1985, EMILY’s List has become a cornerstone of intentional action when it comes to increasing women’s representation in Congress. In 2018, unlike the majority of PACs, EMILY’s List gave the most on average to challenger candidates and the least to incumbents because of their goal of increasing the number of women in Congress. Open seat and challenger candidates funded by EMILY’s List had a higher success rate than Democratic women overall during the 2018 cycle, further illustrating the power PACs can have in endorsing and funding candidates. With the help of EMILY’s List, the number of women in the Democratic Caucus continues to steadily increase, while the number of women in the Republican Caucus fell to a 25-year low after the 2018 election.
As long as money and PACs continue to play a role in the American political system, they have a responsibility to level the electoral playing field so women have an equal opportunity to run, win, serve and lead. The Center for American Women in Politics (CAWP) has reported a record number of women candidates filing to run for Congress in 2020, with 44 states having passed their filing deadlines. But, despite another record-breaking year for women candidates, reaching gender parity or increasing women’s representation is far from a guaranteed outcome. To have a real impact on increasing women’s representation in 2020 — and beyond — intentional action by PACs and individual donors is a necessity.
In order to ensure gender parity in our lifetimes, women must be given equal opportunity to run and win, something men have enjoyed since the founding of our country. Until we address the systemic and institutional barriers women face in politics, our country never will have a truly representative Congress and women will continue to scramble to secure their seats at the table.
Cynthia Richie Terrell is the founder and executive director of RepresentWomen and an outspoken advocate for rules and systems reforms to advance women’s representation and leadership in the United States. Follow her on Twitter @CynthiaRTerrell.